Leonardo Kaysar raised his smartie and turned on the camera to snap a few shots of the disaster before him. Clothes lay all over the room, clothes his fiancée had bought on her own, that she wasn’t supposed to wear, bought for purposes she wasn’t supposed to have. Clothes and ridiculous trinkets spilling out of boxes and drawers all at once. Leonardo moved to the bureau and shot a still of the overflowing jewelry box, again considering the excessive new purchases, most still with tags.
“Mr. Kaysar? We’re here.”
Leonardo shifted his gaze to the two girls waiting just over the threshold of the bedroom, Ariel and Deirdre. “Catalog the anomalies and get the cleaners here right away.” He stepped past them back into the living room and surveyed the apartment with a practiced eye. “Bloody hell,” he muttered. “How did she get so far off the base-line?”
Clearly flustered by Leonardo, Dee gestured to the entirety of the place, her stylus shaking between her fingers. “How soon before we bring in the next case? The apartment is going to need—”
“Flip it immediately. And make sure it gets a good cleaning. Get this crap off the floor.”
Ariel bent down and carefully examined the parquetry, which was speckled with a dark, oily substance. Leonardo followed her gaze. The floor was oddly pitted, and the black squares of the harlequin pattern seemed to be buckling. The overall degradation of the apartment was completely incongruous with the woman who lived here, with her designer clothes and perfectly coiffed hair.
Leonardo tapped his wingtip against the floor, pressing down gently until the black square softened under the pressure. “Time is so unstable,” he said with a sigh. “I can move it around but I’ve never been able to quite capture it.” He looked up at Ariel, who was watching him intently. He pointed to his shoe and the stickiness beneath. “It’s as thick and physical a thing as this floor under our feet, yet as thin and intangible as the air all around us.”
Dee ran her fingers over the pockmarked floor. “Is this from her stilettos? This might be hard to—”
The sound of the door scanner echoed down the hall. Dee looked up nervously. Ariel seemed to steel herself. All three of them looked at the door; Ariel ushered Dee back toward the bedroom.
Leonardo’s fiancée stepped over the threshold. “Baby,” she cried in delight. “You’re early!” The lovely brunette surged across the room and threw herself at him, the emerald chiffon of her summer dress floating like plumage in her wake. Leonardo managed to stay upright, but he did not put his arms around her tightly enough. She stumbled on her heels and fell into the wall, an awkward, embarrassing movement that left a smear of lipstick on the white paint.
Leonardo caught her by the elbow and helped her right herself; she saw her best friends, Ariel and Deirdre, standing in the doorway of her bedroom. “What… what’s going on?”
“Mr. Kaysar?” Dee prompted with a quaver in her voice that she managed to control before asking, “Do you want us to step outside?”
The brunette looked at Dee and Ariel, and then back at her fiancé. “Leo? What’s going on? Ariel? Dee? Why are you here with Leo? Dee? Is something wrong?” She looked wildly among the three of them, becoming increasingly hysterical. “What did I do wrong?” she wailed, completely losing her self-control, as if a year of suppressed feelings were just bursting out.
Leonardo collected the girl in his arms. “Shush,” he said. “It’s fine. Everything is just fine.”
Her rapid breathing slowed, and her shaking hands clasped tightly around his neck. She sniffed back tears and looked up at him uncertainly. Leonardo kissed her first gently on the lips, then harder as he pulled his finger-punch from his pocket. Behind her back, he flipped the lock and swiveled the syringe cartridge to the second position, then swiftly jammed the punch into the side of her neck.
Her fingers clawed into the fabric of his suit. Her body went tense. Her kiss drained of life. The crash of her body to the floor followed by Ariel’s truncated curse emphasized the vast silence that followed.
A whimper escaped Deirdre’s lips.
Leonardo turned sharply to the pale assistant. “Try to think of it this way…”
“She was already dead.”
Wide-eyed, Deirdre looked at Ariel, who just looked down at the body. She then nodded dutifully and shifted her gaze from her boss’s face to the corpse. “I really liked her.”
“Well, then, I suggest you work on that,” Leonardo said tightly, moving into the kitchen.
When Dee swallowed hard and looked at her coworker, Ariel flashed a defensive palm at her and keyed her smartie. “Don’t look at me like I’m on your side.”
Dee chewed on her lower lip and moved tentatively to the brunette’s side, taking care not to step on the luxurious hair splayed over the floor as she knelt. “It was such a good part. My first lead role. I’ve always wanted to be an actress. And I really didn’t know that… I didn’t know that you would…” Dee started to cry. “I’m sorry.”
“Shut up,” Ariel hissed, before turning her attention back to the call she was making. “Oh, hi. Yeah. I need the cleaners. Uh-uh. Not that kind. The other division. Yes, that’s what I’m saying. I just said that. It’s a body…. Then find the department that does!” In a much lower voice, she said, “Mr. Kaysar is in the next room. He just gave the order. Do I sound like I want to fill out some paper-work first? Thank you. I’m transmitting the location now And do it fast, if you don’t mind. He wants me to flip the room, stat.”
She turned back to Dee. “Are you crazy? Stop crying before the boss sees you.” Then she poked her head into the kitchen. “Sir, um, is there anything different you want done with the apartment, or is the next girl basically the same?”
Leonardo joined them in the foyer. “She’s not the same at all. That is part of the point.” Ariel flushed red as he stared at her. “You understand what you are doing, don’t you? It’s very important that everyone understands what we are doing, and why. If you don’t believe it, why should our subject, whoever she is?”
“Mr. Kaysar,” Ariel blurted. “I’m a hundred percent committed to my part!”
Leonardo smiled, then shifted his gaze past her to Dee.
Dee didn’t answer. She just stared at him, stricken. Leonardo walked up to her. “Time is unstable, and the control of time therefore depends on how stable and predictable we can make it. To reduce the myriad possibilities inherent in the combination of free will and time, we stabilize what we can.” He swept his hand out, gesturing to the whole of the apartment. “That is why we build in highly controlled situations with predetermined outcomes. We control what we can. For the rest, that which is in here”—he ran his fingers across Dee’s left temple—“and here”—he grazed her heart by drawing an invisible X with his index finger—“the rest we seek to control through meds and biotechnology.”
“I understand,” she said hoarsely.
“I don’t think you do.” Leonardo looked down at the spongy parquet floor, drawing her gaze along with his own. “This… whole set of situations is our lab. You are part of the lab. And that makes you part of something very special and important. When you auditioned, everyone was most impressed. You made us believe, Deirdre, because you believed. Make no mistake: this is not a simple exercise in the art of theater improvisation. You’re changing the world. You’re making history. And if you don’t still believe, then by all means please visit Human Resources before I bring in my next fiancée and our next test subject, Katherine Gibbs.”
Leonardo turned and knelt by his original ex-fiancée. Gently he swept the tangle of her hair off the floor and arranged it around her face. He laid his fingertips across her cheek and wiped the smeared lipstick from the corner of her mouth with his thumb. Then he stepped over her body and walked through her bedroom into the bathroom.
He opened the cabinet and surveyed the contents. Again, certain things shouldn’t have been there. An amber-colored glass bottle rested on the upper shelf. He pulled it down and examined the label to confirm the date of issue, and then unscrewed the top and tapped the remaining pills into his hand. Shaking his head, he replaced them and pocketed the bottle.
Turning to go, he stopped short. He craned his neck to look at the bathroom wall. The white paint was streaked with thin gray rivulets, and as Leonardo Kaysar faced the wall head-on, raised his hand in the shape of a gun, and ran his index finger down the surface, on the other side of reality, one spin of the axis away, the nanoseconds of his present life were preparing to converge with those of his past….
“I come bearing soup!” Katherine Gibbs announced triumphantly from downstairs. Roxy heard the door slam, followed by a ruckus involving the excessive banging of pots and pans far beyond what was probably necessary to heat up a can of soup. Roxy smiled, and then grabbed a tissue from the box at her side and sneezed loudly before falling back to her pillow with a groan.
“Hey, Rox!” Kitty barreled into the room waggling a brown lunch sack. “Feeling better?”
Roxy scrunched down farther under the covers and tried to look as pathetic as humanly possible. “I still god a code.”
“Good news, then,” Kitty replied, fiddling about in the sack and pulling out a small purple vial. “I stopped by Potions and Notions and had them mix up some essential oils that I really think will help recenter your wa.” She uncorked the vial and tipped the top against her thumb.
“I dode think by wa is askew. I just god a code.”
Kitty suddenly lurched forward and pressed her thumb against Roxy’s forehead. Roxy yelped and dodged, only to give Kitty easier access to smear something behind her left ear.
Another fruitless dodging attempt left the right ear in the open.
Kitty calmly stuck the stopper back in the bottle. “Roxanne. I have been dealing with your various illnesses—including the ones you make up—for how many years now? Decades. Its been decades. And are you still alive?” She threw up her arms in fake shock. “Look at this! I do believe you are.”
“Maybe two decades. Less nod exaggerate,” Roxy said, rubbing at what she considered the nonessential oil that was probably going to get all over the covers now. “If I could smell, I bed it’d smell bad.”
“It smells like eucalyptus. You like euca—Hey, something’s not right. Oh! Oh, no, you don’t.” Kitty bolted for the windows. “There will be no cocooning in excessive darkness. And absolutely no wallowing.”
“Bud I like it dark,” Roxy said with a sniff. “Udderwise I cand seep.” She coughed for good measure and craned her neck toward the brown bag to see if Kitty had brought something more promising back from the store. Like chocolate.
With a violent snap, Kitty opened the curtains behind the headboard and ushered in a bright shard of light.
“Ack! That’s so wrong!” Roxy ducked under the comforter and made some clogged snorting noises.
Downstairs, a timer went off. Kitty left to fetch the soup, leaving Roxy basking in the fun of being sick enough to be pampered and waited on, but not so sick that she couldn’t enjoy it.
Kitty returned with a lap tray, the bowl of soup front and center, a spoon, a napkin… and a small bar of chocolate. “In case you can still taste,” she said.
Roxanne Zaborovsky grinned up at Kitty, then sat up in bed and eagerly accepted the tray. “Dude, you’re, like, the world’s best friend ever….”
Roxanne Zaborovsky opened her eyes. It was dark. There was no soup. It didn’t smell like eucalyptus. And her wa whatever the hell that was—was definitely askew. She’d dreamed of something that had happened more than a year ago.
She sat up in bed and glanced at the empty spot next to her; Mason was already up. Roxy suddenly sneezed and grabbed a tissue out of the packet on the side table. She blew her nose and threw the wad of tissue across the room in the vague direction of the garbage can, and then slumped back in bed. There’d been no soup, no motherly fussing, no stupid New Age potions in some time. For that matter, there’d been no shopping, no late-night movies, and no excessive ice cream eating, either. And there’d certainly been no talk of dreams for the future or laughter and wincing about the past.
I miss my friend.
Roxy grabbed a second tissue from the packet and used it to mop up the tears suddenly streaking down her face. She crumpled the tissue into a wad and threw it as hard as she could after the first one, and then slumped back again, only to need another. But instead of cocooning or wallowing, Roxy forced herself to get out of bed. With a yank, she opened the curtains and let the sunlight blind her.
Hey, Kitty. Are you still alive? I do believe you are….
She yanked down the hem of Mason’s baggy workout shirt, swiped at the tears with one sleeve, and shuffled downstairs toward the smell of coffee and cooking oil wafting up from the kitchen. Angus looked like he needed some breakfast, so Roxy tapped some flakes into his fishbowl from the shaker, then proceeded to cross the living room floor for the sole purpose of staring at the living room wall.
“Why do I always look sooo good on you,” Mason Merrick said as he came out of the kitchen with a spatula in one hand. He wrapped his arms around Roxy and plopped a sloppy kiss on her neck. She turned and burrowed her head into his shoulder, and he pulled her off him to study her face with one arched eyebrow. “Hmm… bad dream again?”
“Knowing Leonardo Kaysar is out there still makes me want to… makes me want to…”
“I know.” Mason glanced up at the wall, then back at Roxy. “I know.”
Roxy managed a smile. He wasn’t just saying that. Mason felt it every bit as much as she did. Leonardo Kaysar had come into their lives once before and nearly succeeded in taking everything away from them. That should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t, and now they were going to have to go into his life and finish what he’d started.
Roxy raised her hand and pointed her index finger, then pressed it against the wall as if she could just poke it and knock the whole thing over. “We beat you once before, Leo.” She raised her thumb and turned her hand into the shape of a gun. “Kapow.”
There is the future. There is the past. And, of course, in between there is the present. Simple enough for the average person, but not for a wire crosser, someone who could cross and splice versions of life and assign people different realities. Those in the time-manipulation business knew that whether one was past, present, or future at any given moment really depended on one’s point of view. Well, one’s point of view and some particularly clever technology.
Unfortunately for Katherine Gibbs, she didn’t actually have a point of view; someone else was having it for her. She couldn’t have known that she was an ordinary present-day girl stuck in Leonardo Kaysar’s extraordinary version of her future world, and that he was running her through one highly controlled week in this new life over and over and over again. He’d looped her mind, and the kicker was that she’d never been happier.
The condo next door to Katherine’s had been empty the entire time she’d lived in the tony housing complex. It had remained empty for so long, she never even considered that eventually someone would move in. But apparently someone had, because on this night, as Katherine stood at the bathroom sink listening with her mouth slightly agape, there was noise. Something more than your average sort of noise. In fact, it seemed the new neighbors were hacking away with some sort of blunt instrument at the wall separating her bathroom from their living room. It was the sort of blunt-instrument hacking that would be borderline inappropriate at any time, really, but which was particularly inappropriate this late in the evening.
Glancing over her shoulder, Katherine uttered the word clock loudly in the direction of her bedroom. A gauzy blue light illuminated the bedroom wall, superimposed with numbers in thick black. She noted the time and sighed heavily.
Such a fabulous day it had been. Such a perfect day. Good karma all around, then suddenly this. Katherine hesitated… but, really, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask the new neighbors to postpone demolition until the next workday. Though it was true such meetings were best done with fresh cherry pies in the light of day, Katherine decided that she couldn’t wait, and if she couldn’t wait, the best approach would be a friendly offense. She’d just pop over and put a face on things so at the very least these people would think twice about making more noise. Katherine’s face had an excellent batting average in this sort of situation, and she was lucky enough to still be wearing full makeup, so she slipped her shoes back on, grabbed her smartie, and stepped into the hall.
The electricity had been all screwy lately, and even when Katherine tipped her head back and ordered a fix using regulation tone and perfect enunciation, the light filament in the hall outside continued to frizzle and spit. If she hadn’t been living in one of the nicest buildings in the city, the effect would have been downright creepy. She lifted her smartie to her mouth and recorded a note to inform the manager.
Her heels pressed down into the rich, cream-colored carpet lining the hall as she walked over to her neighbor’s door and paused. Katherine didn’t know anybody else in her complex. There were only a few units per floor, as each luxury condominium took up quite a bit of space; the high ceilings and long hallways gleaming with decorative arcs of steel and polished inlaid wood took up the rest. This wasn’t the sort of building where you popped next door for a cup of sugar, so it was with some reluctance that Katherine raised her smartie to activate the doorbell.
She then realized that she couldn’t hear the offending sounds anymore—not from the hall, anyway. Perhaps they’d stopped. There was nothing less effective than complaining about a metaphorical barking dog when the dog wasn’t barking. She waited a few moments, then turned away from the door with a sigh.
Katherine turned back.
Tink. Tink, Tink, Tap.
She placed her palm on the door and leaned in to listen—
The door unlatched and slid open and inward of its own accord. Katherine went with it. Horrified, the immediately lurched back, but alarm sensors didn’t go off. Nothing went off. There were no angry neighbors. No lights. From her spot just over the threshold, she could see that the unit was just like her own one-bedroom: it opened into a small entryway and sported the kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom to the right, with the dining and living room areas center and left. And just like her own one-bedroom, this was furnished, with a black-and-white parquet floor and swanky deco-futuro furniture and trim.
Blam! There it was.
“Hello?” Katherine called. “Hello?”
The only light in the place emanated from the streaks of moonlight burning through the windows. Katherine stood for a moment, taking in the familiar gray trapezoidal fabric pulled back with clips on either side of the frames. It was not mysterious in the least that apartments in a furnished complex should be decorated in exactly the same way, but still it was something of a surprise. To see her personal space duplicated made her feel as if someone had stolen her property and put it on display.
Design was Katherine’s vocation. She might be a clothing designer, but it was hard to imagine she wouldn’t have made over her own apartment to her unique tastes. And yet… here it was again for somebody else, and she couldn’t remember whether she’d decorated it for them or they’d just copied the design from her. With a sigh, she shrugged off this latest reminder of the blankness that never stopped plaguing her and stepped gingerly over the threshold.
Dust particles swirled in the light. Tink. Tink. Katherine peered through the murk toward the living room, which was shut off by a familiar set of French double doors.
The apartment lurched. The floor shuddered, knocking Katherine to her knees. She scrambled forward and grabbed the double doors for stability, clutching them until the reverberations died away.
“Hello?” she called out again, a quaver in her voice. She slowly pushed the doors open.
With a gasp, she sat back on her heels, staring at the… well, there was nothing happening in here at all.
The sounds continued; the apartment rumbled beneath her. It was very clear that whatever was happening was happening right there where Katherine knelt on the tile. She was not experiencing residual noise and jolting from above, below, or next door; it was immediate. Katherine knew this, though she couldn’t have explained why—or why she could see nothing out of the ordinary. Her eyes reared up, and for the first time she could ever remember, fear crawled from the pit of her stomach and fluttered through the rest of her in waves. She wasn’t scared of what she was witnessing; she was scared of something she sensed but couldn’t recognize within herself. Something that wasn’t supposed to be there.
Stumbling to her feet, Katherine bolted from the condo, slamming the door behind her. She made quick work of the small distance between the two units and squirreled herself safely behind her own door.
It made her feel much better to be home. Much, much better. In fact, within mere seconds she’d managed to calm herself, and when the odd, loud noises started up again a moment later, she simply ignored them, stepped out of her shoes and dress, and washed her face. But as she carefully refolded her towel and tucked it back on the bathroom rack, Katherine still sensed something just wasn’t quite right, something that couldn’t be ignored.
A minuscule inkblot on otherwise perfectly white paint very low on one’s bathroom wall might escape the notice of a normal person, but it was just the sort of not-quite-right detail a girl like Katherine would catch. As she contemplated the blot, a fragment of plaster popped out of the wall with a tink and wafted like a snowflake down onto the black tile at her feet.
Katherine looked at the snowflake, then at the wall. With another dainty tink, a second snowflake projectile fluttered to the ground. And as she stared at the chips with blank curiosity, a crack began to form in the wall, radiating sideways from the mark with a shushing sound, as if she were crumpling paper.
Another crack formed and radiated upward this time, and without further warning a patch of plaster practically leaped out at her, smacking her on the forehead. Katherine lurched and fell, then immediately rose up on her hands and knees. The funny sensation she’d felt next door was threading its way through her system again, and, still on her knees, she crept forward. She ran her fingers from the top of the crack down to the roughest crumbly area; they came away smeared with plaster dust to reveal a walnut-sized hole.
A sucking sound, like that of a deep breath, whistled through the hole. The vague notion that every inhalation inevitably had a matching exhalation passed through Katherine’s mind, but that thought scattered as the blunt force of some tool smashed through her bathroom wall from the other side. Blam! Katherine yelped as the vibrations from the blow slammed through her knees and body. Then all went still and silent.
Crouching awkwardly in her underwear on the slippery tile, Katherine slowly ducked her head down, kept a reasonably safe distance, and looked through the hole.
By all logic, what she was supposed to see was a dark living room and furniture matching her own, but Katherine had to blink hard against a bright, cheerful light. And when her eye finally adapted to the change, she found herself watching a goldfish swimming merry circles in the confines of a fishbowl. She automatically reached out to touch, only to yank her hand back when the light flickered and something much darker obscured her view.
It took her a moment before she realized it was another eye. Somebody’s plain brown eye was blinking rapidly, apparently trying to focus, “Kitty?” a woman’s tentative voice asked.
Katherine screamed at the top of her lungs, scrabbled backward across the bathroom floor until she managed to recover control, then shot up and ran to the bedroom to grab her smartie off the bed. Holding the gadget to her chest, she stood between the two rooms and waited for something else to happen. Nothing did but a long stretch of silence. After a moment, as her pounding heart calmed and the exact details of the strange and impossible event began to fade from her compromised brain, Katherine peeked around the doorframe and looked at her bathroom wall.
The paint on the wall was completely normal, untouched. No hole, no radiating cracks, certainly no goldfish or brown eyes or strange voices. Katherine stared at the wall for a moment, trying to keep straight what all this was about and why her heartbeat was skittering, but the situation seemed a bit silly somehow. Forgettable. And, indeed, within a few more seconds of quiet, she’d completely forgotten about any of it. Katherine glanced into the mirror over the sink, double-checked, then fished tweezers out of the medicine cabinet and perfected her right eyebrow with an expert flick of her wrist.